A Platform for Community

How Chicago’s Rebuild Foundation moved from producer to host for a stronger civic commons

Sabina Bokhari
Feb 6, 2020 · 9 min read
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BraveSoul Movement hosts the Soul Power Cypher Vol. 3 on the Arts Bank lawn. Image credit: David Sampson.

At the corner of 68th and Stony Island Avenue, in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, the Stony Island Arts Bank is a neighborhood anchor in a community that once was a mainstay of Chicago’s black middle class before decades of divestment. Formerly a savings and loan bank, today the Stony Island Arts Bank provides the South Side of Chicago with 17,000 square feet of space for innovation and community space for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors worldwide to research and engage with Chicago’s South Side history and foster community dialogues around issues of race, social justice, and healing.

Founded by artist Theater Gates, Rebuild Foundation demonstrates the impact of innovative, ambitious, and entrepreneurial arts and cultural initiatives across its sites. Among these sites are the Stony Island Arts Bank, Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, a mixed-income housing and studio development, and the St. Laurence School, a shuttered elementary school which will become an arts and business incubator for local makers and creators.

To date, Rebuild has hosted tens of thousands of visitors across its sites to participate in exhibitions and programs. With a variety of film, music, and educational programming, visitors have access to special collections and resources; pop-up events; panel discussions; free film screenings; music and dance performances; writers’ workshops, and rotating exhibitions.

Through innovating to strengthen the impact of this work, Rebuild Foundation has deepened our partnerships with community members and artists on the ground. By increasingly engaging organizations and individuals leading impactful programs, Rebuild has begun to serve as more of a platform for mission-aligned organizations. For the Foundation, serving as a civic commons means providing space, support, and partnership around common goals.

Here are four insights we have gained from shifting our focus from program production to becoming a platform for mission-aligned individuals and organizations:

Chicago has long established itself as a world class city with a rich history of arts and culture and beautiful public spaces that commemorate and expand on that history. Within the city, the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood is a strong, vibrant community within the city. However, generations of divestment and discriminatory public policy excluded Chicago’s South and West sides from the prosperity that has accompanied Chicago’s economic growth. This systematic exclusion has led to high rates of unemployment and poverty, weakened public education, and increased crime. As a result, the narrative of the neighborhood has become dominated by statistics that dictate the opportunities available to the community.

The median income on the South Side is $40,812, over 30 percent less than the citywide median of $63,153. In Chicago’s South and West Sides, 40 to 60 percent of residents live below the poverty level. In Greater Grand Crossing, unemployment is 14.8 percent, 154 percent higher than the national average.

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Kids from the Greater Grand Crossing community join BraveSoul Movement for free, weekly hip-hop and street dance classes at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative. Image credit: David Sampson.

But these ​​statistics​​ fail to capture ​​the ​​multi-generational ​​historical​​ significance​​ of​​ these​​ neighborhoods ​​and ​​the resiliency ​​of​​ our ​​residents. We have come to realize that one important role that ​​Rebuild Foundation and the Stony Island Arts Bank provide is a new and alternative lens — arts and culture — through which to approach these longstanding inequities.

Through this lens, we are able to use our spaces to empower creatives and organizations in our neighborhood to share their talent on a wider scale. By tapping into the local organizations already doing the work in our communities, we are able to partner in ways that allow us to have an augmented impact on generations to come.

As a private rather than public entity, Rebuild Foundation has enjoyed the flexibility of experimenting with optimal organizational structures and the advantage of being nimble. However, Rebuild Foundation’s initial approach to staffing relied on internal employment. As a new, growing and changing organization, this approach limited the impact we were able to have in our communities.

Over the past three years, we’ve learned to lean on external support for marketing, security and additional staffing needs. We’ve hired communications consultants to amplify our work and outreach to the community, which has allowed us to streamline and broaden our storytelling approach. Through our efforts on social media, we’ve also received additional insights into what our community members are interested in seeing from a programming perspective. Interestingly, more exposure for Rebuild Foundation has also resulted in increased awareness and interest in our partners.

Engaging interns and volunteers has allowed us to be more intentional and thoughtful around engagements with our collections at the Arts Bank. Tapping into a community of neighbors and friends who are interested in our work has not only allowed us to bring the community in to connect with our collections directly but also supported our work as a rather lean, growing arts and culture organization in Chicago.

Reclaiming and reactivating underutilized space to create public amenities is significant work, especially in disinvested neighborhoods. It is worth considering whether a staff-centric approach is best suited for the process. We’ve found that a more fluid approach to who accomplishes “the work” — a mix of staff, consultants, artists and community members — amplifies our impact.

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DJ in Residence Duane Powell hosts twice-monthly afternoon dance parties in the Johnson Lounge (Left). Neighbors and friends gather to practice yoga and meditation with Stacy Patrice at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative (Right). Image credit: David Sampson.

While reflecting on the role of staff in recent years Rebuild Foundation has also intentionally moved to become a platform for mission-aligned individuals and organizations. We have found that by acting as a purposeful host we can be a larger catalyst for our neighborhood.

Illinois Humanities’ presence at the Stony Island Arts Bank is one example of how Rebuild Foundation has helped bring new educational and cultural amenities to the South Side. Starting in 2018, the Illinois Humanities Education Division’s satellite office became the first tenant at the Arts Bank. As an organization that builds dialogue across all sectors of society to examine issues important to democracy, it utilizes the Stony Island Arts Bank as a platform for programs like the Odyssey Project, Sojourner Scholars program, and the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards.

Illinois Humanities’ tenantship has allowed Rebuild Foundation to expand our partnerships and reframe our operational model. Their programs have greatly informed our approach to structure and programming at the St. Laurence school and future Reimagining the Civic Commons sites.

At the same time, Illinois Humanities has found great value in having the Arts Bank as its home on the South Side:

“The phenomenal collections housed at the Arts Bank have inspired us to reshape some of our programming around these objects that then fostered new and different collaborations with artists, scholars, arts organizations, and community members working and living on the South Side,” said Chris Guzaitis, Director of Education at Illinois Humanities. “We see the possibilities that can come out of bringing together a group to collectively interpret what a Grammy award-winning DJ’s vinyl collection tells us about his artistic practice; we see the possibilities that can come out of discussing the impact of Ebony and Jet magazines on our lives in the wake of the shuttering of the Johnson Publishing Company; we see the possibilities of pairing these encounters with shared meals, dance parties, and community curated exhibits and film screenings in order to build stronger communities out of intimate moments of learning and reflection.”

With a platform-approach we have opened our sites to local artists some of whom lead free weekly classes and programs for the community. For instance, Daniel “Bravemonk” Haywood and Kelsa “K-Soul” Robinson lead regular hip hop, street dance and footwork classes for adults and kids in our neighborhood at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative.

“The goal in partnering with Rebuild is to provide opportunities for Black youth in the surrounding communities to see and understand the inherent value in their cultural productions, to build not only self-worth, but to also see how that can translate into something tangible economically,” said Daniel “Bravemonk” Haywood of BRAVESOUL Movement. “My partner Kelsa & I organized weekly workshops and open practice sessions in street dance styles (including breaking, house, hip-hop, popping and Chicago footwork) to uplift and bring youth, teens and adults from several communities and across Chicagoland together to build powerful relationships & skills through music and dance.”

By playing host rather than producer, we can activate our sites more often with a variety of programs — adding vibrancy to these public spaces in a way that would be difficult with a small staff and a limited operating budget.

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Voguing workshop, led by Adonte Prodigy, celebrating the ballroom and Black queer and trans community. Image credit: David Sampson.

Becoming a platform for our community is strengthening both Rebuild Foundation and Greater Grand Crossing. Our programming is stronger through partnerships.

Last summer, at BRAVESOUL’s Soul Cypher on the lawn of the Arts Bank, we were able to witness the impact of our stewardship of the Tamir Rice Memorial Gazebo. Rebuilt on the lawn of the Arts Bank, the gazebo in which Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy, was shot and killed by a Cleveland Police Officer, stands as a testament to “turning pain into power.” At the Cypher, BRAVESOUL Movement and participating dancers stood under the gazebo and offered words of tribute in memory of Tamir.

This beautiful moment highlighted how our work across sites engages our community around moments that reflect our three core values: black people matter, black spaces matter, and black things matter.

We are attracting more investment to our neighborhood.

As a private entity, fundraising is critical to supporting our partner artists and programs. Partnerships here are just as important as those in programming. Last spring, we received a generous $1.6 million grant from the City of Chicago Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to support our work in developingSt. Laurence as an oasis for artists, makers and entrepreneurs.

Grants and fundraising efforts have also helped us develop early operational models for sites to come, such as St. Laurence. A grant from the Coleman Foundation has enabled us to partner with Sunshine Enterprises to host a 12-week intensive Community Business Academy with a focus on entrepreneurial creatives and makers. This model of partnership with Sunshine Enterprises will inform the structure of our classes and workshops at the revitalized St. Laurence creative hub.

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Community members gathered at the Stony Island Arts Bank for a public dedication ceremony honoring the life of Tamir Rice after the installation of the Tamir Rice Memorial Gazebo on the Arts Bank Campus. Image credit: David Sampson.

Rebuild Foundation’s partnerships with local artists have expanded the realm of possibility for funding and programming at our sites. We were thrilled to sponsor Bravemonk and K-Soul for the Chicago Community Trust’s Safe and Peaceful Communities grant, which enabled us to deepen our collaboration with BraveSoul Movement at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative.

Partnering with funders has also supported our collections work at the Stony Island Arts Bank. We received a donation from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation to support our digitizing of the Frankie Knuckle’s collection housed at the Arts Bank. With this grant, we are able to hire additional support staff to make the Godfather of House Music’s personal record collection accessible to all who wish to engage with this important slice of Chicago’s history.

Our communities are full of resiliency, talent, and potential, and our neighbors deserve beautiful public spaces where they are free to explore their creativity and their heritage. Rebuild Foundation’s successes over the past three years have enabled us to create unique explorations for our neighbors and friends that reflect the rich histories of our communities. Our partnerships make our impact powerful.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, William Penn Foundation and local partners.

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity…

Sabina Bokhari

Written by

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities. A collaboration of The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, William Penn Foundation and local partners.

Sabina Bokhari

Written by

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities. A collaboration of The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, William Penn Foundation and local partners.

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